Colonial National Historical Park | TOUR STOP A: BRITISH INNER DEFENSE LINE

Stop A: The British Inner Defense Line on the Yorktown Battlefield tour, Colonial National Historical Park

Stop A: The British Inner Defense Line on the Yorktown Battlefield tour, Colonial National Historical Park

YORKTOWN BATTLEFIELD TOUR


See the Yorktown Battlefield Tour main page for a tour map.


The first stop on the Yorktown Battlefield Tour is the British Inner Defense Line. While the official stop is at a pullout just down the road from the Yorktown Battlefield Visitor Center, the British inner defensive trenches and earthworks ran continuously from the York River near the Visitor Center to the York River on the west side of Yorktown. The hills you see just about everywhere in the vicinity of the Visitor Center are not natural, but are hills built by British soldiers as defensive walls.

Remains of the walls from the British inner defense line at Yorktown, Colonial National Historical Park

Remains of the walls from the British inner defense line at Yorktown, Colonial National Historical Park

There is a large collection of authentic artillery pieces just outside the Visitor Center. These represent all the different types of artillery used in the American Revolution, though they were not necessarily used at the Battle of Yorktown.

Cannon on display at the Yorktown Battlefield Visitor Center in Colonial National Historical Park

Cannon on display at the Yorktown Battlefield Visitor Center in Colonial National Historical Park

Cannon on display at the Yorktown Battlefield Visitor Center in Colonial National Historical Park

Cannon on display at the Yorktown Battlefield Visitor Center in Colonial National Historical Park

1681 Mortar that was used in the American Revolution on display at the Yorktown Battlefield Visitor Center in Colonial National Historical Park

1681 Mortar that was used in the American Revolution on display at the Yorktown Battlefield Visitor Center in Colonial National Historical Park

Yorktown was chosen by the British for its excellent deep water harbor that could accommodate their ships. They set about fortifying Yorktown in July 1781, but they did not expect to have to defend themselves from a land force as large as the one that eventually arrived. George Washington left New York in August with approximately 7,000 American and French troops, an army that did not frighten Cornwallis. However, he picked up nearly 8,000 more Continental soldiers and militiamen along the way, while French Admiral Francois Joseph Paul de Grasse’s fleet of warships landed an additional 3,000 troops. Once the French fleet blockaded the mouth of the York River starting in early September, British supplies and reinforcements could no longer get through to Cornwallis and his men. With American and French forces now numbering more than twice that of the British troops at Yorktown, Cornwallis was stuck with no chance of escaping.

The British, with the help of 2,000 runaway slaves who were promised freedom should England subdue the rebellion, had built two lines of earthen defenses at Yorktown—one farther out and the one seen at the tour stop—the inner defenses. The outer defenses did not create an unbroken line of trenches and walls as did the inner defenses but instead were small, earthen forts placed at strategic points on the terrain, allowing the British to fire upon anyone advancing towards Yorktown. Two of these forts still exist, Redoubts 9 and 10, and you will visit them at Stop #4 on the Yorktown Battlefield Tour.

Should the troops on the outer lines be overrun, the inner line of defense was the area to where they could retreat, and with the rest of the British army, make a last stand. This is the area where most of the artillery was located. Aside from the outdoor exhibit at the Yorktown Battlefield Visitor Center, a few cannon have been set up at various locations on the earthworks, pointing in the direction where the American and French forces were positioned.

Cannon exhibit along the British earthworks at Yorktown, Colonial National Historical Park

Cannon exhibit along the British earthworks at Yorktown, Colonial National Historical Park

Cannon exhibit along the British earthworks at Yorktown, Colonial National Historical Park

Cannon exhibit along the British earthworks at Yorktown, Colonial National Historical Park

At the pullout parking area for the official Stop A is the remnants of a small British fort, the Hornwork. This jutted out from the main defensive line like a bastion so that cannon could be trained on the York-Hampton Road, the main road into Yorktown. Enemy advancing along this road would be easy targets. The sunken impression in the ground is the interior of the former fort.

The Hornwork, a fort on the British defensive line at Yorktown, Colonial National Historical Park

The Hornwork, a fort on the British defensive line at Yorktown, Colonial National Historical Park

Located in a field a short walk from the pullout is the foundation of the home of Thomas Nelson (1716-1782), a former Secretary of State for the Colony of Virginia. Cornwallis used this home as his headquarters until it was destroyed during the fighting. If you don’t feel like making the short walk across the field, you aren’t missing much.

Nelson was the uncle of Thomas Nelson Jr., a Patriot who helped organize Yorktown’s version of the Boston Tea Party and was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jr. is associated with the Nelson House that still stands in the historic district of Yorktown, though the house was actually built by his grandfather, Scotch Tom Nelson. The Nelson House is open to the public at select times during the tourist season.

Foundation of the Thomas Nelson house at the first stop on the Yorktown Battlefield Tour, Colonial National Historical Park

Foundation of the Thomas Nelson house at the first stop on the Yorktown Battlefield Tour, Colonial National Historical Park

After the war, the citizens of Yorktown tried to have the hills leveled, but this was never done. Many of these defenses would be used again during the Civil War when the Confederates at Yorktown were attacked by Union troops at the start of the campaign to capture Richmond.

You probably won’t spend much more than five minutes at Stop A, not counting time spent at the Yorktown Battlefield Visitor Center. If you are listening to the CD Audio Tour, you may end up spending an extra five minutes.


Next Stop: Grand French Battery


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Last updated on January 21, 2024
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